What’s up in language education?

Bildung – Human rights – Equality – Openness and Inclusion – Sustainable Development – Peace Education

The above are themes discussed in some depth in the two educational events that I participated in recently: the ECML national support event at the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI) in Helsinki and NERA 2019 in Uppsala. The ECML, European Centre for Modern Languages, support event was about the Call for proposals for the program 2020-2023 with the title of Inspiring innovation in language education: changing contexts, evolving competences. The theme in the NERA, Nordic Educational Research Association, 2019 conference was Education in a globalized world. Participating in these two successive events was very refreshing in terms of getting a wider perspective on what is happening in language education in Europe and in education in a globalized world. It may not be surprising that the topics of the two events were overlapping.

In his opening speech, Jorma Kauppinen, Director of EDUFI, informed us that during Finland’s presidency of the Council of Europe, three thematic areas have been prioritized: 1. Human rights, 2. Equality and 3. Openness and inclusion. All these       contribute to, for example, the prevention of radicalization of young people. He also claimed that language policy is the answer to many problems in the world. Sarah Breslin, Executive Director of the ECML, emphasized the role of ethics and pointed out that the core values of the Council of Europe, namely, democracy, human rights and the rule of law do not work without education. The ECML’s vision is “A Europe committed to linguistic and cultural diversity, where the key role of quality language education in achieving intercultural dialogue, democratic citizenship and social cohesion is recognised and supported.

With the above emphases, education, language education included needs to consider its perspectives and it is obvious that a paradigm shift is occurring in education. Brian North described how the approach to language education has been updated in the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) companion volume published last year. A language learner is now seen not just a learner but a language user and a social agent. The action-oriented approach in the CEFR moves away from the four skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) to four modes of communication: reception, production, interaction and mediation.  The CEFR companion volume admits that the concepts of interaction and mediation still need developing (CEFR 2018, p. 32). When using the Finnish language, this becomes obvious as Paula Mattila, Counsellor of Education at EDUFI, pointed out, there is no Finnish translation for the concept of mediation yet. I would suggest ‘välittäminen’ having the dual meaning of delivering and caring as that would seem to be very much in line with answering the challenges that global education is facing, at least in the light of the information I got in the NERA 2019 conference.

Several keynote lectures at NERA 2019 made references to United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),  OECD Core Competencies, Unesco Global citizenship education and United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training. All these goals in education in a globalized world are full of values as Thomas Nygren and Felisa Tibbitts stated in their keynote. The teaching profession has a lot to consider and a paradigm shift in the profession may be happening. In his keynote, Michel Vandenbroeck claimed that teachers do not see caring as part of their profession, but his view is that learning = caring and caring is part of the teaching profession.

Thinking of the social agent of the CEFR and the values and goals of European and global education, I have more questions after the above two events than I may have had before them. Values inevitably affect human interaction where languages are probably the most used vehicles for communication. What then are the values of the plurilingual social agents, the learners and users of languages? How are values part of language education?  The action-oriented approach to language learning in the CEFR seems to be in line with the OECD competence approach. However, the difference between competence and Bildung was also raised in one philosophy of education presentation. Odin Fauskevåg argued that competence and Bildung provide different frameworks for education. Competence defined as knowledge and skills is, as Odin claims, knowledge about the world whereas in Bildung knowledge is a way to unity with the world. What I think is very crucial for language education (and education in general) in this difference between the two concepts is that skills can be measured but unity with the world may not be. The OECD Future of Education and Skills 2030 project is broadening the scope of competencies to include “Transformative competencies” “for young people to be innovative, responsible and aware”. In this vision, students are expected to act ethically and ask questions about norms values, meanings and limits. (OECD Education 2030, pp. 5-6) Thinking of how all these broadening approaches affect language education in higher education, it seems to me that language educators, as well as all educators, need to look at what ethical action means to them. The word ethics was used a lot in both events, but do we all agree what we mean by ethical agency and action? Perhaps we need to negotiate that and perhaps we do not always agree but in Michel Vandenbroeck’s words: “Let us embrace complexities. Negotiations entail disagreement. Disagreement is the basis of democracy. “. In a plurilingual world, mediation may be needed.


Mirja Hämäläinen

Lecturer in English